After two days in a dusty high-altitude village about 100km from Lhasa, trapped between military and police checkpoints in lock-down after the riots of March 14, our passage is approved and we begin the tense return journey to the Tibetan capital. From there, we are to be evacuated at the request of the Chinese authorities - communicated to us via contacts in Lhasa - aboard a commercial flight to Chengdu in the Sichuan Province of southwest China.
Discussions have also taken place with the Australian embassy in Beijing to facilitate departure. The mood in the 4WD is strained: our Tibetan driver and translator are particularly worried for family and friends, and fearful of what else may happen in the coming days.
We travel among large military convoys also heading to Lhasa, and are questioned and searched at several military checkpoints. About 20km outside of Lhasa, we encounter a scene not unlike those found in old war movies, passing a small village with many burnt-out buildings, overturned blackened cars, and glass still strewn across the road. Armoured personnel carriers stand guard at either end of the village, but otherwise there are no signs of life. We doubt we will be allowed to re-enter Lhasa.
Meanwhile, the Chinese authorities are desperately trying to convey to the outside world an impression of normalcy, suppressing as much news as possible about the crackdown. Unlike their response to anti-Chinese unrest of 1989, they have decided this time not to declare martial law, nor have they announced a curfew. It is evident, however, that one is in force.
We are in contact with friends in Lhasa who inform us that daily life is being controlled by troops. No-one can move freely from their compounds or homes, all shops are closed, and there are concerns for dwindling supplies of food and water. Large numbers of paramilitary police patrol the streets.
Most foreign residents appear to have left. Internet and mobile phone communications have been disrupted, and the most repressive measures in 20 years are in force. There is word that foreign journalists are barred from entering. Continuing our journey, we arrive at one of the main road entry-points to Lhasa and are directed to drive around the outskirts towards the airport.
We had just received word from our contacts in Lhasa that a diplomatic letter has been obtained from the Public Security Bureau, the Chinese government office that deals with policing, social order, immigration and travel affairs of foreigners. With this letter, our original flights can be rescheduled for the following day, and we may pass military checkpoints en route to the airport without the interrogating questions.
Obtaining information about the evacuation process has been very complicated and often third hand. While in Tibet as an independent traveler, I had also been affiliated as a volunteer to a healthcare non-governmental organisation who provided invaluable assistance and support with the necessary arrangements for departure. They maintain complete neutrality in their work to prevent compromise of their activities.
The night is spent at the Lhasa airport hotel, where we meet other foreigners and exchange tales of our experiences. Generally there is a shared sense of shock and fear, combined with mixed emotions of relief and sadness to be leaving. I cannot bear to think of the kind, generous, hospitable locals that I had met during my stay, but am now leaving to an uncertain future … Even today, the overall picture of what happened during those few violent days, and is possibly still happening now, remains blurred, mainly due to ongoing information and travel restrictions imposed by the Chinese government. This is hardly new: the Chinese have long relied on oppressive methods such as political manipulation, patriotic education, repression by secret police and military force.
The unrest on March 14 began when days of peaceful, monk-led protests in Lhasa (rumour had it that many monks participating in these initial protests had been beaten, arrested and imprisoned) spiralled into a citywide riot that the government says led to the deaths of 18 civilians. They also claimed the protest was masterminded by the Dalai Lama, Tibet's 72-year old spiritual leader who remains in exile in Dharamsala, India. The Dalai Lama, who fled China in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese Communist rule, denies he is behind the unrest, which his representatives and Western media estimate has claimed some 140 lives.
"The Tibet nation is facing serious danger. Whether China's government admits or not, there is a problem," he told reporters. He accused Beijing of a "rule of terror" and called for an international investigation into whether cultural genocide was taking place in his homeland. The Dalai Lama long ago ceased demanding independence for his people: today his demands do not go much further than advocacy of cultural autonomy (designed to preserve indigenous Tibetan cultural, political, linguistic and religious systems), and he has refused to call for a boycott of the Olympics.
The Chinese Communists, meanwhile, continue to denounce him. Days after the recent riots, the Beijing-appointed Communist Party chief in Tibet, Zhang Qingli, described the Tibetan spiritual leader as "a wolf in monk's robes, a devil with a human face, but the heart of a beast". On the same occasion, he told officials that "we are now engaged in a fierce blood-and-fire battle with the Dalai clique, a life and death battle between us and the enemy".